To Protect and Serve

In our latest reading of Medical Apartheid, I found myself once again disappointed by the systemic violence against black communities in our recent history; not least of all by our government’s own participation in the abuses. I’ll admit, my knee-jerk reaction to accusations of bio-terrorism by the United States government against minority communities was disbelief. In the modern era, terrorism brings to life images of mass casualties and of screaming civilians in bloody, torn clothes weeping of the remains of their loved ones. Surely, I thought, no such action had occurred here under the authority of the United States government. The activities of American racist groups and extremist like the KKK fit such a description, but the government? As though Harriet Washington had foreseen my objection, she explained her label of terrorism in a way more compatible with logical discourse: “…terrorism is best defined more narrowly – as a threat or the use of violence (including kidnapping, extortion, assault, and murder) by an individual or organization that targets innocent civilians… to further ideological, political, or religious goals.” (Washington, 365)

Through these lenses the definition becomes much more appropriate to the crimes that occurred at the Carver Village complex in Miami, Florida. The government was using medical knowledge to murder civilians in the hope of perfecting a technique to wage biological warfare. This crime against humanity, perhaps not the most egregious in human history but a crime none the less, highlights the often duplicitous nature of our countries institutions. The same government that abused its minority citizens has thwarted efforts by extremist groups to commit genocide. Washington, to her credit, describes several plots, one in Arkansas and another in Minnesota, where white supremacist groups attempted to use bioweapons to “cleanse” black communities. (Washington, 367)  The efforts of the FBI were instrumental in preventing these atrocities from happening. This does not forgive the past actions of the FBI in undermining the civil rights movement with their campaigns against Dr. King and other prominent leaders nor does it excuse the failure to prosecute government officials for their roles in experimentation on African-American and minority communities.

I suppose what I’m asking is what do we do about our institutions now that we are armed with this knowledge. Outright abolishment seems out of the question as many of these institutions, be they CIA, FBI, or even the Armed Forces, are essential parts of our government. Individual people are complicated and even those who appear noble tend to occupy a realm of moral ambiguity. Institutions, made up of hundreds of thousands of individual, are even more complicated and holding them to a standard of perfection will inevitably leave us disappointed. We need to all accept the mistakes and abuses of power these institutions have committed even as we respect them for the sacrifices they have all made in their efforts to make our country safe. I’m curious as to what others think can be done to reform these institutions and how we can accomplish this as a nation. Feel free to comment about it in class or online.

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